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The Dearth of Videos about Visualization

To appropriate the famous Martin Mull quote, writing about visualization is like dancing about architecture. Why are we using written words, like this blog post, to talk about visualization instead of moving images, like in a video?

It gets weirder, because the impetus for writing this comes from a discussion on Clubhouse, the audio-only social media/hangout place that’s all the rage right now. Yes, we were discussing visualization without any access to visuals. I’m just as confused as you are.

But seriously, visualization is obviously a visual medium, and yet there isn’t much visualization content that is video. And by video, I mean YouTube. The comment that started this post was about how many people now search for information on YouTube, and even if they use a more general search engine expect to find videos. I know I’ve been doing that more and more lately. And I’m clearly not alone, check out some staggering stats: two billion logged-in monthly users watching a billion hours of video every day. YouTube is the second-most popular website out there (only beaten by Google).

Visualization Visuals

Video being a visual medium, well-designed and executed visuals are clearly a way to get an audience. 3Blue1Brown is an outstanding example in my opinion, using extremely well-designed and recognizable animations to explain complicated mathematical ideas. A few other random examples that come to mind (and that I happen to know) are Practical Engineering and CGP Grey.

None of them use data visualization, but they all use visuals for part or all of their videos to explain and illustrate ideas and concepts. Visuals work well in video for obvious reasons, but I think it’s helpful to see some of these examples to appreciate just how well they can be designed.

Where does data visualization fit in? Just like explaining engineering concepts, mathematical ideas, or political systems can be done using illustrations, many other things could be argued or explained using data. And of course, visualization itself can often use some visual help to help people understand how to read it, what to compare to, etc.


But, you say, visualization is a niche! How can I expect to get traction on something that isn’t makeup tutorials or some kind of gadget reviewing? Fair point.

Know what else is a niche? Music theory. And yet, Adam Neely has close to 1.5 million subscribers, 12tone has over 400,000, David Bennett has 370,000, and David Bruce over 180,000.

Yes, music theory. Now tell me again about visualization being a niche? There are much smaller niches on YouTube with massive numbers of people watching. Even a small niche translates into a large number of people when the total possible audience is in the billions.

Video Is Too Much Effort

Yes, it is a lot of effort to create videos. Mine take many hours, and while you can certainly just mumble into your camera for 20 minutes and upload that, you won’t get much traction.

I do think that it’s possible to make good videos with less effort, though. When I first thought about making videos several years ago, I initially thought I’d draw my visuals by hand, xkcd-style. Alas, my drawing is not exactly of the quality I would be happy to use in a video. But other people surely can do better and could do great things with just paper and a pen (or an iPad and a drawing program).

There are some very successful channels on YouTube that use hand-drawn visuals. Two that come to mind are 12tone and minutephysics. 12tone is really just hand-drawn, though certainly with a lot of thought put into his scripts. And minutephysics animates and manipulates some of the drawings, but most of it is just based on (relatively) simple but well thought-out drawings.

Quality has many aspects and can be achieved in different ways. There are the absurdly high production values of Captain Disillusion, but there are many others who make good videos that people enjoy because of their content even when the visual quality isn’t that great.

Tutorials, Explanations, Research, Etc.

I think there is a lot of room on YouTube for visualization content. Some of it basically presents itself: how do I do X in software Y? Tutorials are probably the most obvious things people look for on YouTube, and they’re also the easiest to do. They do require planning, scripting, and pacing though, or they get incredibly boring and tedious. I’m a huge fan of Ripple Training for Final Cut Pro tutorials, and their 60-second videos in particular. There's an art to making tutorials that aren't just informative, but also enjoyable.

But there is more to visualization than the pure mechanics. I’m obviously trying to do more conceptual things on my channel, and there’s a lot more to say about the thinking behind data analysis, data preparation, statistics, visualization, etc.

And then there’s research. A lot of people are really interested in learning more about what is going on in the research world, but their access is quite limited or they don’t know where to go. Videos accompanying papers are more common now, but they often don’t stand on their own, aren’t paced or scripted very well, are filled with jargon, etc.

But the bones, as it were, are there. There’s clearly a lot of potential in bringing more visualization to people through video. And I think it would be a great exercise for students to think about structuring how they present their work, not just for video but also in writing.

Isn’t it weird that there are more successful podcasts about visualization than video channels? Forget Clubhouse, YouTube is the natural habitat for visualization.

Posted by Robert Kosara on April 13, 2021.